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McCarthy backed for speaker, but has work to do before January

Closed vote was 188-31, and speaker needs support from 218

House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California conducts a news conference Tuesday after securing the Republican nomination for speaker.
House Minority Leader Kevin McCarthy of California conducts a news conference Tuesday after securing the Republican nomination for speaker. (Tom Williams/CQ Roll Call)

House Republicans voted 188-31 on Tuesday to formally nominate Kevin McCarthy to serve as speaker in the next Congress, but the opposition shows the work he’ll have to do before a floor election in January, when he’ll likely need 218 votes.

Those 31 votes against McCarthy, taken by secret ballot, went to former House Freedom Caucus Chairman Andy Biggs. The Arizona Republican launched a last-minute bid for speaker, which he said was “about changing the paradigm and the status quo.” 

Five Republicans submitted write-in votes for someone other than McCarthy or Biggs, according to Virginia Rep. Bob Good, declining to say who those votes were for other than that each of the five voted for someone different. Several other lawmakers in the room, including McCarthy, said they did not hear an announcement about the five write-in votes, although members do have that option. 

Votes in House elections are still being counted in many states, and in a dozen races no winner has been called. At the time of the nomination vote, The Associated Press had called 217 races for the GOP, but the conference was letting anticipated members-elect who were leading in uncalled races participate. 

Biggs cited Republicans’ underwhelming election performance as a reason he decided to challenge McCarthy, the California Republican who is the current minority leader. 

“The promised red wave turned into a loss of the United States Senate, a razor-thin majority in the House of Representatives, and upset losses of premiere political candidates,” he said in a statement. 

McCarthy and the newly elected GOP leadership team held a news conference Tuesday at which they downplayed their election losses. McCarthy said he  doesn’t think the election “went wrong” for House Republicans considering they are about to sit in the majority. “Did we want something much bigger? Yeah, we did,” he said. 

In the January floor vote for speaker, McCarthy will need a majority of all House members, who can say any name they want. Typically, they name party leaders, but sometimes members toss out alternatives or vote “present” in protest. Present votes do not count toward determining the threshold for a majority, so one option for McCarthy, in addition to winning more supporters, is convincing opponents to vote present instead of naming someone else. 

McCarthy said he expects to have enough votes to win the speaker election in January and that he won’t turn to Democrats for help. He cited the most recent Republican speaker, Paul D. Ryan, losing 43 votes in the conference nomination before getting elected on the floor. What McCarthy didn’t mention is that Ryan had a much bigger majority to work with and that 10 Republicans still voted against him in the floor vote.

McCarthy also cited Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s election after Democrats took back the majority in 2018. She lost 32 votes during the Democratic Caucus nomination despite being uncontested. But again he neglected to mention that Democrats had a larger majority then and that Pelosi still had room to accommodate 15 defectors that didn’t vote for her on the floor.

Rules change sought

Biggs and most of the Freedom Caucus members opposing McCarthy are withholding their support to leverage changes to the conference and House rules that give more power to rank-and-file members. Other Freedom Caucus members support the proposed rules changes but are backing McCarthy. 

“There are reforms that must be made in the House in order to facilitate representation of our constituents,” Biggs said. “Items such as allowing members to move to amend bills, only allowing bills that cover a single subject, and requiring bills to go through committees before bringing them to the floor. Members must also be granted more time to read the legislation and debate the merits of it.” 

Freedom Caucus Chairman Scott Perry said Monday evening that he and some of the group’s members had a “very cordial meeting” with McCarthy earlier that day on their proposed rules changes. The Pennsylvania Republican declined to get into details of their discussion other than to say it was effectively the start of a negotiation with “ebbs and flows.” 

Freedom Caucus members have proposed more than a dozen rules changes. They range from ending proxy voting, a change McCarthy has already promised, to reverting back to a “motion to vacate” rule governing the removal of a speaker that would allow any member to file a privileged motion to force a vote. McCarthy previously said he opposes that change, but when asked about it Tuesday he demurred. 

“When the conference is this tight, I think we all work together,” he said. “At the same time, nobody’s going to have more power than anybody else. A majority like this, four people could decide the future, whatever it goes. So either we’re going to lead as a team or we’re going to lose as individuals. And I think we’re going to lead as a team.” 

Restoring the old motion to vacate rule is important to Good, who backed Biggs in the conference vote but seemed open to changing his mind going forward. 

“A secure confident leader is not threatened by their position being dependent on the support of those who they lead,” he said. 

Other proposed changes, like the ones Biggs mentioned to limit bills to a single issue and require them to go through committee and be open to amendment on the floor, sound like basic good governance, but, if enacted, would significantly change the way the House operates. The chamber often packages multiple issues into big bills, sometimes skipping committee for expedience or because leadership negotiates the package, and any amendments allowed have to be approved by the leadership-appointed Rules Committee. 

The Freedom Caucus also proposes requiring that legislation GOP leaders bring to the floor be supported by a majority of the conference, prohibiting the House from voting on anything other than appropriations legislation after Aug. 1 if lawmakers have yet to pass the 12 annual spending bills, banning earmarks and having committee members elect their chairs. That has been the role of  the Republican Steering Committee, which is stacked with leadership members and allies. The group also wants to restructure that panel, which would still pick committee members even if their proposal to have committees elect their chairs moves forward. 

‘Worthy of discussion’

“We have not prioritized them. We think they’re all worthy of discussion,” Perry said when asked if the group is pushing McCarthy more on some changes than others. “We’re not going to negotiate with ourselves, right? So we’ve offered something. What are you offering, right? I can’t be the buyer and seller at the same time.”

McCarthy did promise Tuesday to eliminate proxy voting and have bills go through committee and be debated before they come to the floor. But he didn’t commit to any specific rules changes, noting he’s just one person and it’s ultimately up to the conference to decide. 

The Freedom Caucus proposals include a mix of changes to conference rules, which House Republicans need to vote on as a party, and broader House rules changes, which the full body will need to adopt in January after the speaker vote. The conference rules debate and votes will begin Wednesday. McCarthy said he is adding a second session after Thanksgiving to allow for further discussion on the rules. That will also give him time to determine what concessions he needs to back to win more votes in the speaker election.

At least one Republican, Florida’s Matt Gaetz, has said he would not vote for McCarthy in January, regardless of concessions. Gaetz is not a member of the Freedom Caucus but is interested in many of the rules changes it is promoting. 

Most Republicans predict McCarthy will ultimately overcome his opposition and win the speaker election in January. 

But if that doesn’t happen for some reason, an obvious contender for filling the leadership vacuum would be his No. 2, Louisiana Rep. Steve Scalise, who House Republicans on Tuesday elected as the next majority leader in an uncontested race. Scalise is generally viewed as having closer ties to conservatives than McCarthy and is well liked among the conference. 

But the Republican most Freedom Caucus members would want to step up in the event McCarthy can’t secure 218 votes is their group’s founding chairman, Jim Jordan. The Ohio Republican ran against McCarthy for minority leader in 2018 but has since publicly rallied behind McCarthy after he helped him secure the top Republican spot on the Judiciary Committee. 

Jordan reaffirmed to reporters heading into the conference vote that he was supporting McCarthy. 

Biggs and other McCarthy opponents have repeatedly said that no one has 218 votes to win a floor vote yet. 

Whip, conference chair races

Minnesota Rep. Tom Emmer, the outgoing National Republican Congressional Committee chair, won majority whip, the No. 3 leadership position. He defeated Indiana Rep. Jim Banks, the outgoing Republican Study Committee chair, and Georgia Rep. Drew Ferguson, the outgoing chief deputy whip. 

Banks was leading after the first ballot, which knocked Ferguson out of the running, and proceeded to a second ballot since no one got a majority.  Emmer pulled some of Ferguson’s supporters on the second ballot and ultimately prevailed over Banks, 115-106. 

Emmer said he plans to hold regular meetings with stakeholders from across the conference’s different factions and work with committees and other conference groups to provide legislative staff with bill comparisons and overviews of broader bill dynamics.

New York Rep. Elise Stefanik was reelected to a second term as House Republican Conference chair, defeating Florida Rep. Byron Donalds in a 144-74 vote. 

North Carolina Rep. Richard Hudson was elected as the next NRCC chair after his sole challenger, Illinois Rep. Darin LaHood, dropped out Monday.

Hudson has held lower-level NRCC posts, most recently running the incumbent-protecting Patriot program. Before running for office himself, he worked as a chief of staff for Reps. Virginia Foxx and John Carter.

The conference reelected Alabama Rep. Gary Palmer to chair the Republican Policy Committee and Louisiana Rep. Mike Johnson to serve as conference vice chair. Both races were uncontested. 

Michigan Rep. Lisa McClain, who is just finishing her first term, was elected to serve as conference secretary over fellow first-term Rep. Andrew Clyde of Georgia and four-term Rep. Glenn Grothman of Wisconsin. The post was open because its current occupant, Hudson, ran for NRCC chair. 

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